RPM Challenge album complete!

You may recall I mentioned at the start of February that I was doing RPM Challenge this year. Well, February’s over and – true to my word – I now have a 35-minute-55-second-long album of electroacousitc work to show for it! It’s been quite a ride, and I want to talk about that a little, but first here it is to listen online, or to download for free, because I like you 🙂

So there it is – the result of a month’s work. Four tracks of wildly varying duration, demonstrating – I think – significant improvement in my understanding of how to record stuff, how to listen to stuff, and how to (intentionally) make stuff sound nothing like it actually did when I recorded it.

The whole thing (as documented in fragments over at One Creative Thing) was dogged by technical issues, and I’m dedicating the album as a whole to Stuart Russell, without whose extremely generous assistance, it would never have been completed.

This project was a series of experiments – so what did I learn from it?

1. Nightbirds

Essentially an exercise in trying to find ways of using sub-optimal recordings of sounds I really liked, this piece also highlighted the fact that my lovely little Bang & Olufsen headphones are far from ideal for monitoring this kind of work. The loan of a pair of small studio monitors made a vast difference to how I heard this piece, and how I approached later tracks.

2. Negative Space

This is a conceptual/experimental piece which I freely acknowledge is influenced by Alvin Lucier’s great I Am Sitting In A Room (go and listen if you’ve never heard it!). It’s the realisation of an idea I had a while back but didn’t know how to approach. Technically, it got me practising recording my own voice through my Røde M3 microphone (which I’ve done before but without really understanding what I was doing), and exploring the possibilities of automating aspects of EQ in Logic to achieve what I wanted.

3. 1200RPM

While 4th on the album, this was the third piece composed for this project. I didn’t have a lot of time left and I also wanted to experiment with using a very limited palette of sounds across quite a long duration. The final version correspondingly uses only two basic sounds from a single recording, using time-stretching, reverb and notch EQs to draw out specific frequencies from the time-stretched recordings. Really quite pleased with this one. It’s my favourite track on the album.

4. Random Study No. 1

The last piece composed, and pulled together in the final hours of the challenge as I raced to meet the deadline. I decided to use that time-limitation to make myself work with things I haven’t really worked with before in electroacoustic tracks. The short time available meant that I just had to throw things together and see if they worked, rather than thinking too deeply about whether or not they should work. The result is a study which is pure sound-in-and-of-itself – everything is out of context, and there’s no point trying to identify what the recordings are of and trying to make connections, because there are none! Previous musique concrète work I’ve made tends to use sounds all from a single location or source. I’ve avoided using comprehensible speech or musical fragments. I’ve avoided using loop effects and overtly rhythmic sounds. This piece goes against all of that, and I found it really very rewarding to work on. It combined recordings from a range of different sources – from a recording made at Borough Market the previous week with my new Tascam DR-40 recorder, to sounds recorded on my iPhone at the Kent County Fair and in Pompeii last year, to snippets of practice/workshop sessions from college and close-miked sounds recorded at home. It made me think differently about my material and how it could be used.

This idea of a study to randomly throw things together in a short period of time and see what happens is, I think, a very useful one. I ended up using sounds which I had thought would be unusable because of the low quality of the recording, thinking of new ways to combine things, paying more attention to the location of a sound in the mix (something that really becomes foregrounded when working with a variety of location and close-miked recordings) and just generally trying to put my preconceptions to one side to get the work done. I suspect I may end up making several of these Random Studies simply because they challenge the way I think about pre-recorded material.

RPM Challenge 2015 is on!

Back in 2012, I signed up for my first RPM Challenge, subverting the format slightly to compose 10 new works (which turned out to be 9 new works plus 1 new arrangement due to unexpected concussion) for 10 different performers who then all recorded their pieces for the album Lucky Dip.

That was a fantastic experience for me – incredible experimentation, great to work with a range of different performers from all over the world, and to hear all those pieces played at the end of it! Words cannot describe.

That was the year I started my Masters degree, which didn’t allow time for such internet hijinks, but now I’ve graduated, I’m raring to go and have signed up for RPM Challenge 2015!

This time, though, I’m taking a different approach. I’ve been doing some short courses at Morley College lately in Field Recording and Sound Art, and I have a lovely fancy new digital recorder that I need to get to know well before my next Crossing Dartmoor recording trip, not to mention a couple of mics I’ve not experimented much with, so my RPM Challenge album this year is going to be all about field recording.

I’m not sure yet how I’m going to structure it – I want to practice recording, but I also want to go wherever my ideas take me – so maybe all the sounds will be from one location, or maybe not; maybe I’ll produce an album that is all straight field recording, or maybe I’ll work in some musique concrète or mess about with voice or other instruments as well; maybe maybe.

For now though, I’m committing. I’ve got a few ideas for recording starting points and I’ll see where that takes me!

As usual with these sorts of projects, although blogging isn’t a requirement of RPM, I plan to blog my progress and thoughts more-or-less daily over at One Creative Thing. Come and join me?

2015: My Year of Fear

Many people have rituals for each New Year. Those famous resolutions, so often doomed to failure after a few weeks, used to be mine, until I realised they didn’t work, so now every year I write two blog posts. The first is a list of 10 good things about the year that’s past, to focus on achievements and gratitude rather than beating myself up too much over the stuff I didn’t get done, and the second is a list of goals I want to work towards over the course of the year ahead to clarify what’s most important to me.

Invariably, writing up these two posts leads on to further thinking about my work and life and reorganising of stuff and ideas, and musings on potential changes of approach. Which brings me right here.

As you may know, a significant component of my MFA project involved investigating and addressing creative fear, both as a concept and in practice. I did quite a lot of reading around this topic and ended up in a place where most of what I did in the second half of the degree was driven by a mantra:

FOLLOW THE FEAR

By ‘follow the fear’ I mean that if something scared me – really scared me – then I took that as a sign that it was something I had to do. Worried that a piece of music in video format shouldn’t really be considered music? Do it anyway! Scared that using chance procedures will result in music which doesn’t sound nice? Give it a go! Fearful that a non-aural recording that relies entirely on the imagination of someone looking at a piece of art might be considered self-indulgent and pretentious? Won’t know till you try it!

Unexpectedly, though, following the fear seemed to reduce the amount of fear I actually felt and converted what had previously been fear into exhilaration and a sense of daring. I realised through writing my annual blog posts that following my fear had in fact led me to a new ‘safe’. It is now easier for me to work on crazy experimental stuff that borders on performance art than to work on conventionally notated music. Partly because I’ve become accustomed to challenging the borders between creative disciplines, partly because I have  friends and colleagues who are very enthusiastic about this work and encourage me to take it further, and partly because those same friends offer me opportunities to get this work performed/presented easily and regularly.

Which is grand except that now I realise that I feel fear around other areas of my work – fear that was there before but which was so overshadowed by my fear of challenging disciplinary boundaries that it felt like safety.

So it seems that I need to not only follow the fear, but chase the fear – seek out what things still scare me about the work I want to do and actively pursue those things. Previously the fear seemed to be in one direction, but now I see that it is all around me.

Right now, I can see two specific areas I’m going to need to focus on: Notated music now raises the (irrational) concern that it will be unoriginal, dull, that I will get stuck and that nobody will like it when I do finish it. And fundraising (particularly applying for grants for composition projects) is a mire of fears about rejection, project management ability, responsibility and originality of ideas and so on.

Daring!So I’m declaring 2015 my Year of Fear. My lovely sister-in-common-law (who is herself a specialist in stage fright in her Alexander Technique practice) gave me this beautiful journal (right) for Christmas, so I’m planning to use it to track this exploration, as well as blogging my progress and ideas here.

I’m hoping that if my experience last year is indicative of what generally happens when you follow your fear, I should be able to reach a point where these things too are a new ‘safe’, after which either shiny new fears will emerge to be pursued, or perhaps my various safe points will merge and new scary ideas develop from that!

How do you deal with fear in your creative work? Do you think much about it? Do you have a particular strategy or process for dealing with it? What do you think of this idea of following your fear? I’d love to hear what you think, either in the comments here, or to @minim on Twitter.

Considering improvisation

For many years, improvisation has been a bit of a bête noir for me. Ask me to improvise and I would make the sign of the evil eye and edge away from you. As a mediocre instrumentalist and also a perfectionist, improvisation took me about as far from my comfort zone as it was possible to go. I was terrified of ‘getting it wrong’, not realising that if I played with confidence then – rather than a ‘wrong’ note being the end of the world like I was convinced it would (or should) be – it could mean a whole new direction for the music, a new idea for others to feed off.

Right now I’m in the throes of Creative Pact, for which I’m finishing Manifesto (begun as part of my MFA project), a piece rooted in learning-as-I-go and taking risks, and I’m finding it rather amusing how casually I have embraced improvisation as a key strategy of this project. True, I’m not improvising with other people, trying to pick particular notes; true, I don’t need to show anybody else an improvisation which I think is poor. But also true is that there’s rarely been an improvisation I’ve done for Manifesto (with the exception of the first improvs for the very first piece when I was still trying to work out what I could do with Max/MSP) that I’ve felt was actively bad and which I wouldn’t even consider putting out in public. I’ve had a little difficulty with picking out which version of the last two pieces would be the one that would be used in the final format of the work, but it hasn’t been because I thought they were rubbish or was embarrassed about them, but because I found that pretty much all the versions I had made were Good Enough to use.

I think Good Enough is a key concept here. Not that I’m not striving for the very best version I can produce, but because a line has to be drawn somewhere. I could keep making versions of these pieces forever, just as it’s all too easy to keep on tweaking and refining a piece of notated music, but what I want to do is to move on, to apply what I”m learning in Manifesto to other pieces. Good Enough means that what I’ve produced fits the aim I have for the piece, that it’s satisfying for me, that anything I feel is not perfect doesn’t mar the whole.

Voltaire (the internet tells me) said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Maybe one of the things I should take away from this project is to pay more attention to when I should simply say “that’ll do, pig” and move on, rather than obsessing over trying to achieve perfection in every tiny detail.

Manifesto is a piece which draws on ideas explored in my MFA research, of amateur activity as a valid part of professional creative work and to that end consists of working with recordings of my own vocal and body-percussion improvised recordings in Max/MSP (which I had never used before starting this piece) along with video material both specially-filmed and pre-existing, to create a composite audio-visual work which explores an assortment of dualities which have become central to the way I think about my work. To follow my progress on Manifesto (updated every day in September 2014), visit my Creative Pact 2014 blog.

The first improvisation for the video section of Manifesto I’m currently working on. It’s not quite ‘Good Enough’, but there’s a lot I like about it.

Breadcrumbs video and a new project

I’m delighted to say that the video of Breadcrumbs at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is now online. It’s missing a couple of bits at the beginning, but gives a pretty good idea of how the performance turned out. Many thanks to Tête à Tête for arranging for it to be recorded.

Performers: Charlotte Richardson, soprano, and Clemmie Curd, cor anglais. Directed by Omar Shahryar. Recorded at Kings Place, Saturday 9 August 2014.

This month I’m working on a new orchestral piece for the Angel Orchestra, an amateur group in North London, which will be performed in December, attending lots of final recitals (including a couple which include my pieces), and with the start of September, I’ve embarked upon my fourth Creative Pact.

Creative Pact is an online group project where people choose a creative project and commit to working on it a little every day for a month, and documenting their progress online. For my Pact this year, I’ve decided to finish composing Manifesto, an experimental piece exploring my current compositional interests using Max/MSP. As this project requires daily blogging, I am doing this offsite so as not to overwhelm readers here! You can follow the updates for the project here.

Breadcrumbs success at Tête à Tête

I am delighted to be able to report an excellent reception of Breadcrumbs, my dramatic monologue for unaccompanied soprano (with cor anglais introduction) at this year’s Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at Kings Place on 10 and 11 August.

Performed by Charlotte Richardson, soprano, and Clemmie Curd, cor anglais, the piece was directed by Omar Shahryar and was performed in the lower foyer space of Kings Place. In spite of some acoustic challenges, it received a very positive response from audiences, who declared it to be “amusing, engaging and original” in feedback, and a review by composer Robert Hugill on his website Planet Hugill described it as a “rather striking dramatic take on the familiar tale”.

Tête à Tête are currently editing a video of the performance, which will be added to this site when ready. In the meantime, we have some excellent photographs of the production by Festival photographer Claire Shovelton. Click on the thumbnails to view the full image.

You can view the full set of production photos at Tête à Tête’s Flickr account.

Adventures in amateurism

One of the aspects of Richard Long’s artmaking practice that has me totally intrigued as I’ve been researching his work for Crossing Dartmoor, is the aspect of the amateur that is almost fundamental to his gallery work. By this I mean that the work he displays uses media and formats (photography, mapping, graphics, text) which are not his primary area of training (sculpture).

In particular I love that his earliest mature work – from A Line Made By Walking onwards – was created not as ‘art’ but as documentation. I suspect that if he’d set out to Make A Photograph of A Line Made By Walking, his entire career would have been quite different. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it at all if he’d felt he couldn’t create a good enough photo; maybe he’d have found a photographer to team up with. But because he did it himself with whatever camera he had and had the image processed at a local chemist shop, this has kind of set the scene for a sort of DIY approach to his work which, while meticulous and professional, also gives a different perspective because his images probably aren’t what a professional photographer would have done; his textworks aren’t what a poet would have done; the way he uses maps definitely is not what a cartographer would do. So his being a sculptor permeates everything and allows him a freedom in these works that possibly he might not have had, had he started from a point of learning how to do these things ‘properly’.

I don’t mean for an instant that he doesn’t know what he’s doing – obviously, over the years, he’s become an extremely good photographer, wordsmith, etc. because he’s done a lot of it, but he is first and foremost a sculptor and I think that liberates his non-sculptural work to be something a little different.

So I’ve been thinking – for a few months now – about what amateurism could mean within my own practice. What are the things I do or could do that are not my principal area of study? How could exploring these areas result in new work, possibly more exciting work, or work which sheds light on my Main Thing, which is notated art music?

A few weeks ago, I was giving a presentation on my working process and our head of department asked me “how would it be if you stopped apologising for your art and just called it art and let other people make up their minds whether they think it’s any good?”. Of course, he’s absolutely right, and one of the outcomes of this has been a realisation of how much work I’m not doing because I feel, for example, that my singing voice is untrained, I don’t practice the flute enough and I don’t feel I have enough experience with field recordings and other recorded forms of music to know whether what I am producing is OK or actually the electroacoustic equivalent of Comic Sans.

And I’m beginning to think that if I’m to really embrace these ideas I’m researching, then I need to be embracing my own amateurism and making use of the skillset, even if limited, that I have in areas other than notated composition.

This is, of course, also bound up with the thread of fear and embracing uncertainty that runs throughout this project. I’ve been researching this topic and exploring different ways of handling my fear ever since the year started and it’s starting to pay off, to the extent that lately I’ve been finding myself just doing things that normally I’d shrink from on the grounds of being an amateur without even really thinking about it. With the result that I’m now creating artworks intended for gallery display – even for sale! – for an exhibition in the summer; and a couple of weeks ago I sang solo in front of an audience for the first time ever – sight-reading two pages of John Cage’s Aria, no less! at a workshop in front of an audience of singers and composers.

It seems to me that even just thinking about this is resulting in my using more of my ‘amateur’ skills, making me more inclined to jump at opportunities where previously I might have hesitated. So now I feel it’s time to start consciously integrating some of these things into the work I’m doing. I’m starting with pieces that use field recordings, live electronics, vocal performance, and video. Who knows what else may end up being included…

Justifying normal

Recital de Canto, on FlickrOne of the many things I love about studying composition at Trinity Laban is the attention paid to not only the music you write, but to how that music is presented. For Masters students preparing their final recital, this means consideration not just of organising players and getting programmes printed, but designing the performance space: how will the chairs be arranged? what lighting will be used? how will you use the quite vast space of Blackheath Halls and create an appropriate experience for what will probably be a small audience (because of happening at odd times during a weekday) in a large hall?

While nerve-wracking, this is a great process to go through. And there’s no falling back on a standard recital format because however you decide to approach it, you need to be able to justify your decision. And “couldn’t be bothered” just won’t cut it 🙂

And so, in the context of a general contemplation of visual aspects of Crossing Dartmoor, I came to consider performance presentation. I thought about the subject matter and the critical aspect of movement (walking) in Richard Long’s art practice: should my singer move around the stage? Around the whole venue? Should I specify that the scores should be set up at various points around the room and the singer to move around them, with the audience able to view the scores by wandering about the space or even looking over the singer’s shoulder as he performs?

That last idea felt a bit too ‘Stations of the Cross’ for my liking – it seemed contrived and at odds with the very natural-world focus of Long’s art. The other ideas also seemed to trivialise the aspect of walking in Long’s work, so I dismissed those too.

The answer I finally came to brought me right back to the standard recital format: singer in front of the piano, on a normal stage, using classic stances. Why? Why present what is turning out to be fairly experimental music in an overused, traditional format?

I was at the Tate Britain the other day, mostly ensconced in the library doing research on Richard Long, but when I emerged I did my customary wander around the gallery in the hour that remained before closing time. And I found Long’s A Line Made By Walking.

I hadn’t really noticed before how much of its “artiness” is conveyed by the way it is presented: its frame, mount and neat hand-lettered title.

When you examine the work itself, while striking, technically it’s not that great. A photographer intent on making A Photograph would almost certainly have done it differently. Not chopped off the tips of the trees at the top, for instance, or focused entirely on the line to the exclusion of its surrounds. But creating A Photograph was not Long’s intent when making this work.

Dieter Roelstraete’s book Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking examines the work and its genesis and impact in detail.[fn1] This piece was a turning point for Long. The photograph, developed at a London chemist shop, was not created with a view to gallery display, but instead as a mere archival document of work completed. Not created as ‘art’, it has nonetheless become art through its display in galleries, and by means of the constructs of frame, mount, white wall, etc.

The duality of Long’s work is one of the things I find fascinating about it, and something which I feel has very strong parallels with the work of composers of notated music such as myself. The artwork on the gallery wall is not the ‘original’ artwork: it is a representation, documentation, archival material that allows the general public to experience the original in some way. It is accessible archival material presented so that it is art. Similarly, for composers, is the score the piece? Or the performance? Long’s response (as mine) is that the answer is ‘both’, in different ways. The in situ sculptures and the walking are at the heart of his practice as the creation of a score is at the heart of mine – without them there would be nothing to look at or hear, but the representation shown in the gallery or performed in the concert hall is also, in its own ways, art.

Which brings me (finally!) to the point because, as I see it, the vast majority of Long’s created-for-display work – photographs, maps, textworks, mudworks – is designed specifically for the ‘white cube’ gallery space. Possibly this seems obvious, but there are many ways to display work, yet Long generally chooses presentation formats which embrace the white wall, the separation of works one from another, the enforced focus of the standard modernist gallery structure.

Brian O’Doherty, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, says “The ideal gallery space subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art’. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself”[fn2].

In this, I see a reflection of traditional recital conventions: separation of performer from audience by means of a stage, formal clothing and standardised positioning onstage. Rituals of accepting applause, silences before and after performance. And the restrictive behavioural expectations of the audience: to sit in their seats, quietly listening, to applaud when the work is done, not to talk, not to sleep, not to get up and walk around or do anything to pull focus from the performers on the stage. This is our equivalent of the white cube of the art world.

And I think viewing Long’s work within a white cube gallery also highlights two aspects which are possibly relevant to what is turning out to be a fairly experimental song cycle. One is that his presentational preference to work with the conventions of the white cube does – at least in some measure – ‘legitimise’ the work presented as art. The frames, the positioning on the wall, these are things that clearly say to anyone familiar with convention that “this is art”. The other is that even while the work’s status as art is being reinforced by its display environment and mode of presentation, it is also clearly displaying its difference. This is not just a wall-painting, it is mud; this is not just a photograph, it is a record of something that was made somewhere else and this is the only fragment of that original work that I will get to experience.

To put these ideas in the context of Crossing Dartmoor, for one of the pieces, the singer does not sing but instead taps two small granite stones together, in reflection of a line drawn through a contour map of Dartmoor. If I asked the singer to tap his stones while walking round the performance space, it would probably seem quite normal – experimental music has often gone hand-in-hand with new and unusual approaches to the space of performance. However, if I stand him on the stage, by the piano in the usual manner and have him tap, what does this mean? If I align stone-tapping with artsong tradition rather than experimental-music tradition, how does this then affect how my piece is received? what does it say about traditional artsong? about our recital conventions? about our expectations as audience members and the way we listen?

Footnotes

Click on the footnote number to return to the text…
fn1: Dieter Roelstraete, Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking, London: Afterall Books, 2010.
fn2: Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, expanded edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 14.

Chance vs choice: Composing with dice

Composing with 12-sided diceOne of the pieces I’m working on for my song cycle Crossing Dartmoor is based on Richard Long’s Two Continuous Walks Following the Same Line. The basis of the artwork is that Long walked the same path in 1979 and again in 2010 and each time recorded the things he came across. This work’s incarnation in Crossing Dartmoor sees the piano part work with the landmarks, the things that are still there 31 years later, while the singer’s text is the transient things that change position or were only observed on one of the walks.

The idea is to have this piece exist in two versions. In each the piano part is essentially the same while the vocal part changes (except for the final “Railway Line” which will be in both pieces). However, having an identical piano part for both versions disturbed me – while fixed landmarks such as rivers and “old china clay workings” will still be in position, they won’t be exactly the same as they were thirty years previously – they can’t be. Simple principles of erosion forbid it. Whether by rain, wind, animals or people, small details will have changed. Possibly beyond the determining of the human eye, even if a photograph had been taken, but they will have changed – and the person viewing them will have changed even more dramatically.

I first thought that I would ask the pianist to repeat notes at random, but not the same notes or the same number of repetitions each time the piece was performed. In a recent meeting with my supervisor, Sam Hayden, though, the project took a decisive turn towards experimenting with techniques that removed elements from my control, and Sam suggested that I use dice to determine the repetitions and create a fully notated part for this piece.

I was a little apprehensive, I’ll admit – I’ve not done anything like this before and I’ve never been a fan of the plinky-plonk random school of composition (technical term). What I hadn’t expected though, was that using dice to determine which note would be repeated and how many times to repeat it (purple die to choose the note, orange to determine repetitions – thank you, Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot) would give me a whole new perspective on what I’d written.

The pitch material for the piano part already demonstrates one layer of control removed: it is all generated using a cipher. Yes, I picked and chose from the notes provided by the cipher, but each section’s piano notes use only pitches from the cipher for the word it represents. I’m finding that this has turned my attention from inventing the ‘right’ melodic material for the piece (always a fraught experience – what if it sounds right but is actually wrong?? says paranoid-brain) to thinking more about resonance and movement, balancing stasis with activity, with the result that this piano part is a lot more rhythmically varied than anything I’ve ever written before.

Devolving the choices of where repetitions happen and how many times a note is repeated to the dice is now allowing me to work more carefully on how the repetition functions in the piece. On my own, I might not have the guts (yet) to repeat a single mid-phrase note 12 times (hurrah for 12-sided dice!) but faced with a predetermined decision, the question is no longer “gosh – should I?” but becomes “how should these repetitions be paced?” “what are their dynamics?” “how do I shape the repetitions so they create suspense and momentum and don’t just interfere with the piece’s progress?”.

Dealing with these questions, even on a simple run-through, has totally reshaped the piece – for the better, I think! – and made me reconsider things which had seemed very straightforward. I’m really interested now to see how different dice rolls will affect the same piano part for the second version of the song. Maybe one day soon I’ll even brave the 20-sided die 😀

One evening, four songs

Research is all very well and good, but whether it can be applied outside of the research context is the real test. I think that the work I’m doing is leading to better understanding of how a piece functions, and that it’s helping me to work faster, but how can I really, really tell?

A couple of weeks back, I got the chance to put it to the test. Every February, Trinity Laban runs a fantastic college-wide programme called CoLab, ‘Collaboration Laboratory’. For two weeks, all regular classes stop and everyone (except doctoral students and 2nd year MFA) works on collaborative projects.

I did CoLab last year and found it a really interesting and useful experience. I made new friends, I learned how to solder and I had to think deep thoughts about the role of a composer in a collaboration when that role isn’t going to be just going off and writing notes on your own.

This year it was optional for me but when on meeting up with a friend she mentioned that her project needed a composer, I volunteered and joined ‘The Other English Song Project’ led by Jess Walker. The group consisted of 11 singers and 2 pianists with a brief to explore English-language vocal music. I joined on the second day at which point the project had focused itself on songs which explored the concept of ‘home’. I headed home at the end of that first day with four texts about ‘home’ written by four of the singers, and a brief to write some fragments of music that they’d have a bash at singing the next day.

Challenge 1: Write four songs in less than 24 hours (yes, I could have got away with only doing one or two, but I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could do all four).

Challenge 2: Find a way to write these songs in the time available (and while actually getting a reasonable night’s sleep!) that might sound polished enough to be considered a complete piece.

I also wanted to provide properly typeset scores for all the songs. Mostly this is just a point of professional pride, but I do like to always give performers clearly notated parts, even at rough stages. This turned out to be by far the most time-consuming part of the whole process although one of the singers did thank me profusely and in tones of wonderment for doing it, so I think it was worthwhile 🙂

My first step was to look at the texts I’d been given. These were all different lengths and differing levels of poeticism. I decided quickly that I didn’t want to just set a phrase from each text and throw away the rest of the words. What had been written was heartfelt and very personal and it seemed disrespectful to not try to convey a sense of the whole of what had been written.

So I reworked all but one of the texts – shortening, rearranging phrases, trying to keep as much of each writer’s own words and turns of phrase as possible, while condensing them down to four haiku-ish blocks of prose.

After doing this, an approach became clear which I felt I could pull off in the time available and produce a solid result: to set a phrase or two from each, but couched in the context of the whole (shortened) text, with a simple piano accompaniment running under both speech and song parts.

So this was the single idea I was exploring, and the next step was to find the actual notes. Having found using a cipher so helpful in my most recent Crossing Dartmoor song, I decided that was the way in. I used each writer’s first name for the cipher and encoded it into pitches using Honegger’s cipher.

From that point I worked intuitively but found that the work proceeded very quickly as there were so few decisions to make – I had limited pitch material to draw on, I’d already chosen the phrases I wanted to set and I knew it was going to be necessary to make both piano and vocal parts very easy to read and learn, and that I was going to leave a lot of freedom in the music to make it easier to put the parts together, working towards pieces which rely heavily on the two partners responding to each other rather than needing a lot of precision to synchronise their parts.

Was it a success? Well, I rather think it was! Our project leader was thrilled and said it was exactly what she wanted. The singers and pianists seemed happy with their pieces and – incredibly, to me – three of the four singers had their parts off-book (along with several other pieces) for an informal concert in the college cafe 24 hours after receiving them – and all four for the following day’s official concert in the Old Royal Naval College Chapel. With Jess’s expert guidance, the spoken and sung text blended well and I feel that the approach created a distinctive and satisfying result.

I do feel that without the work I’ve done on my project – specifically thinking about exploring single ideas and using cipher-generated pitch material – there is no way I could have completed these four pieces in the timespan I had available. I could probably have done two, but definitely not four. And without these approaches, I also think that the set would not have turned out as coherent as they did – or as rhythmically interesting because my focus would have been (as it usually is when left to my own devices) somewhat obsessed with finding the right notes.

I would like to thank everyone on ‘The Other English Song Project’ but especially Jess Walker and my singer-authors Melanie Harikrishna, Amon-Ra Twilley, Deborah Miller and Lucy Miller-White who did such a fantastic job learning and performing my music in such a short timeframe.